Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What is a Woman?

Like I've said before, I am thrilled to be making friends and influencing people through this blog. Thank y'all for reading. I've noticed that this blog is serving as a point of introduction to trans issues for some of you; I've been frequently asked to explain terms like "trans man" and "cis."

So, first of all, I am not an expert in trans issues. Not not not. I hope to heck all of you read the book club book, because Wilchins is an authority on the topic. Nevertheless, I would like to say a few things on the subject, because
  1. It's difficult to explain "trans" without defining "man" and "woman," and
  2. People seem to want to rephrase what I do tell them in cissexist language.1

It really is difficult to define "man" and "woman." Yes, many humans have either an XX or XY genotype. Many, not all. It is also possible to be XXX, XXY, XYY, one of several other variations, and to have mosaicism. Even if you fall into either the XX or XY category, these chromosomes may not necessarily determine your sex. For instance, individuals with androgen insensitivity may be XY yet develop a vagina and, later, breasts. Such individuals are usually raised as female and consider themselves women, so it makes little sense to call them "men." Physical characteristics are also not useful for creating a strict binary, as somewhere between a tenth of a percent and two percent of newborns (depending on what criteria you use) have so-called "ambiguous" genitalia (i.e., genitalia that do not fall neatly into one of the two favored categories) and may be considered intersex. These issues were highlighted recently by the ridiculous farce over Caster Semenya's "biological" sex; really, there is no medical test on Earth that can determine a person's sex.

Even if there were a perfect biological binary, we'd still run into trouble, because we've layered so much cultural meaning onto "man" and "woman" that nobody fits into either mold. I'd try to separate sex and gender, but the reason that evolutionary psychology studies are so damn popular with the media is that we are heavily invested in the idea that culturally constructed gender binaries (boys like trucks! girls like dolls!) are fundamental and important and purposeful. So, since nobody else wants to separate sex and gender, I'm not going to either. I think both binaries are bullshit.

"But," you may say, "this is a feminist blog! You talk about women's issues all the time. How can you do that if you don't have a definition for 'woman?'" As it turns out, I do have a definition for "woman." And it's actually really simple. It is "a person who calls themself a woman."2

Any attempt to label some of these women as "real women" or "bio women" is cissexist. We're all real women. If you're a woman you're a woman, and your body is your body: therefore, your body is a woman's body. Now, I'm not trying to tell people how to identify themselves and their bodies; if a someone identifies as both "woman" and "man" (or neither!) we should be able to deal with that, and if someone identifies as a "woman" but calls their body "male" that's their choice, too. But if someone identifies as a woman and you insist on calling their body "male," that is not okay.

We do sometimes distinguish cis women from trans women here at NWF, usually when we want to discuss transphobia in general or cite the experiences of a self-identified trans person. But when we say "women," we mean all women.

1I am far from perfect in avoiding cissexist language myself. While I feel like I did a reasonable job in my post on birth control, I failed miserably in my post about matrilineage. For what it's worth, you have my apology and my assurance that I am working on it.

2This is admittedly a cyclic definition, but, as Jess quoted Judith Butler to me earlier today, "Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original." In this situation, what kind of definition but a cyclic one can possibly be given?


  1. Ah yes, the real vs. not real women/men. I think this is a huge hurdle people face in their understanding of trans issues. I think this post is well-put.

  2. Kyrie and I have already discussed this to an extent. I, too, have a really difficult time discussing sex and gender in noncissexist terms. Probably because these terms are not mainstream and I basically feel like I'm learning another language. In a way, I am, because English as it has stood for some time now does not allow for anything other than "he" or "she." The only gender-neutral pronoun we've had is "it," and it sounds really disrespectful to use that for a person.

    When reading Wilchin's book I was surprised to realize the prejudice against transexuals and that places were open to "womyn-born womyn only" (my apologies if I spelled that wrong). I'm under the impression that most people who undergo sex reassignment surgery or choose to live as a different sex do so because they feel like they have always been that other sex. Therefore, wouldn't be very likely that anyone who is choosing to live as a woman has in fact been born that way?

  3. 093d12ca: To quote Wilchins, "Gender is a language, a system of meanings and symbols, along with rules, privileges, and punishments." So we are indeed learning a new language!

    It is my understanding that many cis and trans individuals do feel they were born with their gender and that that gender is permanent for them. Others may experience varying degrees of fluidity in their gender. I worry that by using the "born that way" defense in arguing for trans rights/respect we might be privileging gender permanence over gender fluidity.

    What I _know_ is that I'm getting in over my head. Time for me to go read some more gender theory!

  4. I absolutely operate with the same definition of "woman" (or, also, "man") as you mention--and that those definitions aren't necessarily static. I appreciate how, in her writing, Wilchins both clarifies and complicates some issues of gender and sexuality. I wish our society could simply allow people to be who they are, whether or not we have a specific term for it.

    Kyrie, if you're looking for more of the same kinds of stuff Wilchins talks about, there's Julia Serano's book Whipping Girl: It's been awhile since I read it, but it seems like it'd make a nice partner to Read My Lips.

  5. Thanks for the rec, Desi. I've heard good things about Whipping Girl; sounds like it's time for me to get a copy!